Pathbreaking Percussionists

In its third edition, the ‘Women Of Rhythm’ concert featured 12 stunning talents from age 16 to 60 saw a reasonably packed St Andrew’s Auditorium, a brilliantly mounted backdrop of ‘Women Of Rhythm’, and an impressive line-up of percussion instruments. The concert was divided into four acts.

Act One (Beats of the World) saw a duo – Siddhi Shah and Shrishty Patidar – play an interesting set of Beats of the World drumming that incorporated African, Latin, and Arabian rhythm. Siddhi (like with most of the artistes one discovered as the evening progressed), challenged all notions of the ‘frail sex’, unfeminine posture, and other such gender definitions, her slender ‘frail’ fingers playing the Djembe, and a variety of other smaller instruments in segments with amazing dexterity.

Moreover, the self-taught Siddhi had rhythm in her every move, so when she played, (with ghungroos (thick anklets worn in Indian dance) on her tapping feet, adding to the count), it was the kind of rhythm that had the listeners grooving and clapping.

Shrishty, who has broken the world record (set by a Mexican girl), by drumming for 31 hours non-stop, is an engineer by education, a keyboardist by hobby, and a drummer by passion. She just needed to prove a point. Who says girls can’t do some particular things?! Defiant in her stance and her playing, Shrishty just literally beat gender specifics hollow!

It was also amazing to see the way the younger set of musicians have improvised, made additions with other smaller and unconventional instruments, creating varying sounds to enhance the main rhythm. Shrishty’s powerful playing combined with Siddhi’s fluid rhythm, made for thousands of exhilarating beats. This brief 20-minute opening act set the heart-thumping pace for the rest of the evening to follow.

Act Two ( Accompaniment) comprised the playing of two pure accompanying instruments – the Dholki, played by Neesha Mokal, and the Tabla, played by Mukta Raste.

By day, Neesha Mokal is an auditor with an automobile manufacturer. In the evenings, she assumes the form of a seasoned percussionist, honing and following her craft. A multi percussionist, she played the tabla for nearly a decade before finding her love in the Dholki (a traditional Maharashtrian Folk Instrument). Adding to her increasing hunger to grow, she found solace in Latin Rhythm and learnt to play the Congas and Bongo under the tutelage of Hindi film Music Percussionist Shyam Edwankar.

Seated on the edge of the stage, she expertly straddled the congas and displayed a variety of incalculable speeds with her flying fingers, later, even using her elbows to exert a different tone from the bongos. I couldn’t believe how musical these instruments could sound, how haunting even pure rhythm could be, when Neesha played her three sets. The icing on the cake was watching Neesha’s own enjoyment of the instruments as she played them, eyes shut, lost in another plane…her Dholki solo was so dynamic and energetic, it evoked strings of cee-tees (whistles) from the audience at her robust playing. The dholki is also probably an instrument that is more associated with lay events in everyday life, than concert stages.

Neesha jammed with Tabla artiste Mukta Raste, an entire act in herself. A singer, and a tabla player, it was Mukta who taught Sonam Kapoor to play the instrument, for the film Padman. Clad in a tradition ‘Nau-Vari’ (nine-yard saree) and Shaalu (shawl), the petite Mukta showed immense strength in her fingers as she displayed her versatility on the tabla. She was accompanied by the very young Kaushiki Joglekar on the Harmonium and later on keyboards. She displayed Teen Taal ( a rhythm cycle of 16 beats), and then played a kayda (a set of rules in composition, literally, wherein the same set of syllables and patterns have to be used in improvisation) of the Delhi Gharana, devised by her guru, and then Mishr Jaati (mixed set) in 7 beats.

Mukta then sang a Gaulani (song of the Milkmaids) by Sant Namdeo, which was highly entertaining, as the narrative unfolded. It also imbued shades of national integration from mythological times, (as well as the first ‘Me Too’ case with Krishna stealing the gopikas garments as they bathed in the pond). She played the tabla whilst singing, quite a feat. This engaging piece also had dholki accompaniment from Neesha. The Gaulani got an encore request, and stupendous applause.

The third act (Beats from God’s Own Country – Kerala) was a couple of sets by Charu Hariharan (daughter of eminent playback singer Dr B Arundhati) who played the Mridangam (she also plays the Kanjira and Cajon) and  daughters of the eminent Chenda Master Kalamandalam Krishna Das, from Tripunithura (Kerala), Shobita and Rahita. The girls are hardly out of their teens yet. Two more young students Krishnanjani and Medha accompanied them. Charu, as a beginner in Chenda playing, played one set with the girls.

They played the Thayambaka, a solo Chenda performance where the main player at the centre (in this case Rahita), rhythmically improvises on the beats played by the surrounding team of players including the cymbal called ilathalam players.  The sounds produced by the stick and palm rolls on the chenda, start slow, building up the tempo till it reaches a frenzied pace, the hand movement almost an invisible blur. The slender Rahita showed tremendous stamina as the pace increased. The band of girls in their traditional cream Pavadai- jackets (long skirts and blouses), with Zari borders, stooped with the increased tempo of the huge chenda drums, gave an incredible performance, that deserved a standing ovation.

Charu, demonstrated a juxtaposition of powerful fingers, creating the softest sounds when she played the mridangam, traditionally a male bastion. She was excellent in the Chenda- Mridangam fusion set. It was for the first time ever, that a woman Mridangam artiste and four women Chenda players collaborated and played together at this concert- a truly unique offering by the concert series.

The concluding act, Act Four ( Guru-Shishya) was by Sukkanya Ramgopal, the world’s first ever woman Ghatam (earthen pot) player, and her first female student, Sumana Chandrashekar, who played the Hand Pan, accompanying Sukkanyaji’s Ghatams. Yes, the sari clad, homely-looking lady sat centrestage with a set of six Ghatams, playing unbelievably complex rhythm patters with the ease of spinning a top! Sukkanya was born into a Carnatic musical family and was a  student of Vidhvan T Harihar Sharma and the living Legend Vidhvan Vikku Vinayakram.  She was denied the opportunity to play the Mridangam or the Ghatam because her fingers would not be able to bear the force required.

Forty-five years and thousands of Ghatam concerts later, she is a force to reckon with. The battle of the Ghatam player is doubly difficult, since the ghatam is classified as an upapakkavadya (an accompanying instrument that is secondary to mridangam) . And she is a woman playing it!

Sukkanyaji and Sumana started with Konnakol, or vocal percussion, rattling off garlands of Taala counts. After which Sumana played the Hand Pan, creating the sweetest sound from another instrument inspired by our kitchen utensils, same as the pot. Her playing was melodious and light, the hand-pan sounding like a combination of the santoor and jal tarang. The range of calculations and counts, permutations and combinations played by Sukkanyaji between her six Ghatams was simply mind –boggling, each of them creating varied sound at points.

Curated by Mumbai-based artiste and event management company Event Shevent, the organisers of Women of Rhythm aim at having four concerts as a part of the concert series.

The concert left one with tremendous pride at these women achievers and artists, each one, path-breaking in their journeys…and the wonderful experience of having enjoyed the extravagant attractiveness of pure rhythm.

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Suguna Sundaram belongs to the rare breed of writers in English who review Indian classical music and dance. A trained classical musician and dancer, Suguna has over three decades of experience as a writer. Interestingly, her day jobs over the years have been with all things commercial, including being editor of some of the most popular (and boldest) film fanzines. Suguna Sundaram reviews Indian classical music and dance on Xyngr.